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Opioid program provides treatment as people with addiction wait to get into a recovery program

Austin-Travis County EMS is seeing success in its Buprenorphine Bridge Program as the city and county battle an overdose epidemic.

AUSTIN, Texas — Drug overdoses killed more people in Travis County in 2021 than homicides and vehicle collisions combined.

It's the leading cause of accidental deaths, according to the Travis County Medical Examiner's Office. Out of the 891 accidental deaths in Travis County, 308 were due to drug toxicity, 170 were from vehicle collisions and 110 were a result of homicides.

In 2020, there were 246 deaths from drug toxicity. In 2019, that number was 182. It was 210 in 2018 and 168 in 2017.

Austin City Council members joined Travis County Commissioners on June 16 and declared drug overdoses a public health crisis.

But one public safety agency is already tackling the issue. The KVUE Defenders took a closer look at the opioid program started by Austin-Travis County EMS (ATCEMS) to see how well it's working.

Photojournalist Dennis Thomas and I rode out with paramedics on three different days to see its Buprenorphine Bridge Program in action. We followed paramedic Mike Sasser on his scheduled calls.

"Yeah, it says here that they're under the southbound side bridge," Sasser said into the two-way radio.

What Sasser does is a side of work most don't see or know about.

"All right, man. Under the southside bridge. Roger that, and I'll make sure I put a note in that you're enroute. Be careful man," a voice responded back on the radio.

Sasser is a community health paramedic with ATCEMS. He has one focus.

"At least once a week, I go follow up on an overdose and have a conversation with somebody because they got resuscitated with Narcan. It typically means that you use opioids because that's the only thing that Narcan works on," Sasser said.

Sasser helps those battling Opioid Use Disorder. He shows up after the patient has been treated for an overdose and after that patient asks for help.

"We're kind of up against the clock," Sasser said.

Up first was a homeless woman suffering from withdrawals.

"So the last time you had anything to use was yesterday when you overdosed?" Sasser asked a woman dealing with addiction.

After evaluating the patient, Sasser treats her with Buprenorphine, an FDA-approved medication that stops withdrawal symptoms and reduces cravings.

The Buprenorphine Bridge Program helps patients get treatment while waiting to get into a recovery program.

"The whole program is summed up into a pretty simple conversation. After so many experiences, an overdose, you go to their house and say, 'Hey, are you OK? Because you just went through some really heavy stuff yesterday and you might have a problem and you need help,'" Sasser said.

Between scheduled visits, we responded to an overdose call near Riverside Drive and Interstate 35. But the situation was resolved before we arrived.

"He woke up after they Narcan-ed him and said, 'I'm good,' and wandered off," Sasser said.

The man who overdosed on fentanyl already left the scene, as it only takes two to five minutes for Narcan to work.

"Because if somebody wouldn't have been here to Narcan him, he'd be dead," Sasser said.

The entire country, including the Austin area, is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic. Since 2019, 911 calls for opioid overdoses have increased every year. They're up from: 

  • 337 in 2019 
  • 368 in 2020 
  • 662 in 2021

From January to May 2022, ATCEMS has already responded to 436 overdose calls. The high number of 911 overdose calls makes scheduled visits even more crucial.

This time, Alan Ramirez invited us inside his home.

"I've been using benzos and opiates since I was 15," Ramirez said.

He allowed us to show him taking the Buprenorphine. He also allowed us to share his story.

"I had cut the tendons in both of these fingers and I had to have a couple of surgeries and I ended up abusing my pain prescriptions," Ramirez said.

The 26-year-old's addiction quickly escalated.

"I had to start getting stuff off of the street and then everything had fentanyl in it," Ramirez said.

This is Ramirez's second attempt at sobriety this year. He's optimistic this time because of the Buprenorphine Bridge Program.

"It's pretty rough. There [are] not a lot of options, you know, and not a lot of people willing to help that are understanding. So, you know, a program like this, I feel like it really does offer a lot and it's been extremely helpful for me," Ramirez said.

John Arrellano feels the same.

"It's a really good program. I like it," Arrellano said.

He thinks he has a good shot at staying sober this time around because of the program.

"It really is a big difference because it just shows, like, someone that doesn't even know you, like, never met you a day in your life is willing to take the time out of their day to help you," Arrellano said.

Sasser said the public needs to realize addiction is a medical condition.

"Addiction is not about having fun or getting high or anything like that. It's about not feeling bad," Sasser said.

Sasser should know. He has been in recovery for 20 years now.

"When you come in and focus on this as a medical issue and we need to address this as a medical condition, and this is what you're experiencing, people are like, 'You understand this? You understand where I'm coming from. I'm not the only one,'" Sasser said.

According to ATCEMS, nearly 200 patients have gone through the program since it launched in December 2020. It's considered a success because about 85% of clients who have gone through it also finish their first seven days of a recovery program, like Garen Aguilar.

"It was like, oxycodone. Oxycontin, um, hydrocodone – just a lot of opium because I had a lot of pain," Aguilar said.

That pain started after he survived a car wreck in 2016.

"The owner of the car let him drive, started going really fast, like, down Barton Springs and then like 70 mph in a residential zone. And then he wraps us around a tree," Aguilar said.

RELATED: After tempting fate many times, an Austin teen hopes to use her story of recovery to help others

On and off for the next three years, Aguilar relied on pain medication to get through losing his hearing in his right ear and several surgeries.

Then the pandemic hit in 2020. That was another kind of pain.

"The isolation, the school, the work," Aguilar said.

He relied on opioids to calm his anxieties and spent around $13,000. At the start of 2021, Aguilar was finally ready for help and signed up for the Buprenorphine Bridge Program.

"How helpful has this program been to you? Would you say it saved your life?" Lee asked. 

"Yeah, it definitely saved my life," Aguilar responded. 

Aguilar now plans to graduate with a double major from St. Edward's University in the spring of 2023 and take the LSAT. The 21-year-old eventually wants to help others struggling with drug issues by offering free legal services for those who can't afford them. 

It's about helping others like the Community Health Paramedics who helped him.

Since the Buprenorphine Bridge Program falls under what Community Health Paramedics do, there is no extra cost to run it – just Mike Sasser's salary, the paramedic who is credited with starting the program.

Austin City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes authored a resolution recognizing ATCEMS' Buprenorphine Bridge Program. The council passed the resolution on June 16.

Jenni Lee on social media: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

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